Category Archives: Love of Music

Downloadable Music and the Flipped Listener Relationship

Mr. Thoughty2

I was watching a YouTube video the other day which talked about “everything that is wrong with modern music.” The host of the video, who goes by the name of Thoughty2, wasn’t even old. Probably around 23. He wasn’t one of those 70-something prog rock old-timers spouting on about today’s music, but instead, he presented some interesting facts about how music is produced and marketed in this era.

Thoughty2 describes how modern hits by people like Taylor Swift are mostly written by a very small group of people, primarily two people in the US and two in Europe who compose using a computer. He also mentions a recurring musical note sequence called the Millennial Whoop that echoes through dozens of modern hits, as this compilation video shows.

I’m not seeking to knock Thoughty2 here. He makes a great argument, and says great things about the Beatles. But every generation deserves its own musical heroes, after all, if only to distance themselves from their parents or older siblings.

I can agree with much of what Thoughty2 is saying, but it’s also possible to think this is a standard “kids today…get off my lawn” type rant. I recall similar arguments put forward in 1963, slagging the long haired, gyrating freakishness of the Beatles or Elvis, and lamenting the disappearance of quality music from Sinatra or the Big Band era. You could go back even further and imagine Thoughty2’s great-great grandfather complaining about how George Gershwin is tearing the classics apart. Even Mozart and Beethoven were criticized for changing music too radically.

But here’s the part of Thoughty2’s presentation that really resonated with me. He pointed out the effect that free downloadable music has had on its creation and quality. Back in the days of vinyl LPs and packaged CDs, you, as a music consumer, had to head on down to the music store and plonk out some hard-earned money to purchase a collection of songs by your favorite artist. There’s a lot of effort involved in that, and it wasn’t cheap. In 1975 an LP would have cost between $4.99 and $7.99. I remember wishing I could get the compilation triple album by KISS, which was retailing for an astounding $10.99 at the time. That might not seem like a lot now, but back in 1975, minimum wage in the U.S. was around $2.00 per hour. The first album I actually bought was Equinox by Styx, for $4.99. It was gorgeous yellow vinyl.

People would listen to the album side from start to end, poring over the artwork and liner notes as they listened. If the album was good enough, they would commit to getting up, crossing the room, flipping the record over and placing the needle down onto track 1 of side B. There was a lot of physical engagement in listening to an album.

But while recorded music was expensive, concerts, were cheap. That’s because they were the loss-leaders designed to get you to buy the merchandise and albums. But as David Bowie so accurately predicted back in 1980, the moment music becomes free (as it now has), artists and their employers – the record companies – will have to recoup their costs through live performances at hundreds of dollars per seat.

Because modern music is free or mere pennies, and because it is available for instant download, no time is needed to think through the purchase decision, to debate whether the tunes are worth buying, or to spend time afterwards listening over and over to the tunes if only to justify the cost of the purchase. There is always more on its way, coming to you with almost no effort on your part. And that has profound impact on how the tunes are crafted.

Instant access means that tunes must offer a combination of universal appeal, familiarity, and instant appeal. To be too different entails too much risk and instant abandonment. Tunes must have an immediate  instant hook – no long-extended introductions allowed – and in many cases the tunes play out as a backdrop to the artist’s video, both on YouTube as well as on the live concert Jumbotrons.

Still, there’s nothing inherently wrong in that. Art must always strike a balance between innovation and comfort if it is to make money.

Blue Swede: The hair! The collars! The Oogachakkas!

The early hook rule applied back in the 1970’s too. A tune had to have something compelling within the first four seconds to get the attention of a record company, and later, the listening public. Perhaps the best and most compelling song opening is the “Oogachakka-ooga-ooga” opening to “Hooked On a Feeling,” by Blue Swede available on YouTube here.

So I’m not sure I an agree with Thoughty2 that there is anything wrong with modern music. It’s what people want to hear, and is a direct product of instant and always-on media that modern consumers have grown up with. It’s just a very different approach – one that has flipped everything around.

I will always stick to the old-school, vinyl-oriented music of my 70’s youth. But music is to be enjoyed, so whatever kind floats your personal boat is never wrong. If it brings you joy, if it makes you feel good, if it adds to your life, it has done its job.

But just for the fun of it, and in case you have a couple of hours to spare, here’s a list of tunes with long introductions that I think are worth the effort. If you want more, here’s the list from Songfacts.com.

Baba O’Riley – The Who
Bat Out of Hell – Meatloaf
Bloody Well Right – Supertramp
Funeral For a Freind – Elton John
I Need a Lover – John Mellencamp
Sound and Vision – David Bowie
Year of the Cat – Al Stewart

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The Physical Aspect of Rehearsal: Recognition versus Recall

This is my pedalboard. It’s not that complicated, but it’s complicated enough for me.

Fellow band members often ask me why I lug my pedal board and guitars to each band rehearsal. After all we’re just going through the tunes – we’re not playing a show. My answer is that rehearsal is not just about knowing a tune. It is also about knowing how to play it, and playing it demands full body muscle memory. More than once when playing live I have hit the wrong pedal and ended up with a fuzz tone when I meant for clean. Or I have mistimed my return to the mic for that next harmony.

Musicians of any age and stage must remember there are levels to the practice regimen. First, there’s practicing at home. Next, there’s rehearsing with a band. Then there’s actually playing a show. Then there’s playing a bigger show. Then there’s playing a big show with many other acts.

Every one of these demands something more and teaches you as much as it pulls from you. Here are just a few examples:

The Difference Between Recognition and Recall

If you have ever studied a second language, have you noticed it is easier to understand someone speak it than it is to speak it yourself, even if you’ve taken years of language classes? That’s because when you hear someone, your brain recognizes the sounds it has heard before and can deduce meaning from them. But when you try to speak it, you have to reach back into the vaults and pull words out manually. That’s an act of recall and it’s much harder.

The same thing applies when learning a tune. You play along with a song on Spotify no problem. It seems easy to learn because your mind is being cued along, even in microseconds. “Here’s where verse 2 starts.” “Here are the words to verse 3.” “Here’s the bridge.” It’s all there. Even a tune you haven’t heard in 20 years, you will likely be able to sing along with because the playback cues your memory and you recognize the pattern of words and notes in something just approaching real time.

You take that song to your rehearsal space and start practicing it with your people, and it’s easy to forget everything. I call it bandnesia. The total lostness of the song. “Wait,” you say, “is the solo after the second verse or the third one?” “How many times do we repeat that line?” You get frustrated, knowing you’ve practiced this tunes dozens of times with your headphones on. But the problem is, you’ve practiced recognizing it all those times. Now, with your bandmates, you now have to recall that tune, and so do your fellow musicians. And you must all recall it the same way. That’s what rehearsal is.

Then you get onstage. This is a different world. There’s the excitement of the crowd. There’s adrenalin rushing through your system. There are the distractions of lights, bigger sound, and the sheer awareness of being looked at. That’s a wonderful sensation, but it can really mess with your memory. I have seen musicians completely forget what note or fret to start a tune on when they’re up there under the lights. Total blank. It happens, and it’s nothing to be afraid of, but it is something to be aware of. Maybe write out the starting chord on your floor sheet, for example.

Each of these levels – practicing at home, practicing with the band, playing on stage, is 10 or even a 100 times more challenging than its predecessor. There are things that rehearsals just cannot prepare you for.

Muscle Memory is Different Than Mental Memory

That’s why I bring my full gear to rehearsal. Every single action, like hitting the right pedal, tuning up between songs, knowing that mysterious place in the universe that picks vanish into and most importantly, being fully aware of your physical self – how you move, how you smile, how you connect with your bandmates and your audience, how to smoothly switch guitars or change up settings – how to look up at the audience even during the difficult solos – all of these need to be memorized just as much as the words and the notes.

It’s a hassle bringing all that gear to rehearsal and spending valuable time setting it up and taking it down. But you watch a great live show and you can see just how well planned and practices every move, every line of banter, every spontaneous huddle and chat between the guitarist and the bass player in the middle of a song. And most importantly, the sharp start and impressive end to each tune.

If You Want to Be Spontaneous in Life, Plan to Be Spontaneous

Keith spits out his cig under a perfect keylight in Scorcese’s shine a light. He always knows what he looks like. See it on YouTube here.

Yes it’s a joke, but it’s not. Even Keith Richards, the loosest, shaggiest guitarist of all time, knows exactly where the best camera angles are, he knows how to coordinate his layered clothing style and how to sling that guitar really low. Spontaneous does not mean unrehearsed. It means it appears spontaneous to the audience, and that requires practice. It’s theater. Even Kurt Cobain did it. It just didn’t look like he did. Which is the whole point.

One can never over-rehearse, in my opinion, because the wild unpredictability of live performance will always deliver new challenges. But I have worked with many musicians who say, “We got this tune, let’s move on,” to which I always reply, “No you don’t.” Let’s do it again.

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Forming a Successful Band – Read a Business Book

This is a post about becoming successful as a band. It’s about music, so don’t let this next paragraph turn you off. In fact if it does turn you off, that’s likely part of your problem. So here goes.

There is a great book that you can find in the business section of any bookseller, online or otherwise. It’s called the E-Myth Revisited, and it’s by Michael Gerber. I recommend it constantly to clients and to my professional speaking audiences because of its simple premise: just because you are good at something doesn’t mean you’ll make a good entrepreneur. That’s the myth. That’s what the letter “E” stands for in the title: Entrepreneur.  To succeed in business, you have to have a triangle of talents: 1.) your subject matter expertise; 2.) your marketing ability; and 3.) your management ability.

In terms of being a musical act, your subject matter expertise means your ability to perform live, which is very different from simply being able to play your instrument. Marketing ability helps you locate new business, and management ability helps the business run. Most businesses fail because the entrepreneur only wants to focus on what he/she does best, leaving the other two sides of triangle unattended, at which point the business collapses.

It’s the same with bands. Many people form bands with the idea of jamming once per week and then hopefully getting a gig somewhere. There are a lot of talented, passionate musicians out there. But for the band to make it out of the basement, they must fit themselves inside the place where talent, chemistry and schedules overlaps. People have to be able to play, but they also have to get along in some form – be on the same mental page. And they need to be able to get together no less than once per week, in order to keep up the  momentum.

  • If you have talent and chemistry, you will likely have a great time jamming and experimenting in the basement, and for many that is certainly enough. It’s the sheer joy of playing music with kindred spirits. Nothing wrong with that, but it won’t get you many gigs.
  • If you have talent and a schedule for regular rehearsal, you will likely have a band for a while, but once new members pass through the honeymoon stage of “Wow! this is cool,” their true personalities will emerge. Just as with any team that is formed in the corporate world, the danger of things falling apart is high if the chemistry and sense of team is not omnipresent.
  • If you have interpersonal chemistry and an schedule that allows regular rehearsals, but the talent is not quite there, well, lots of practice is in order. Playing live onstage is a lot harder than jamming in the basement. Some musicians are indeed lucky to learn this by playing hundreds of gigs a year on the road, hardening up their skills under the lights. But for basement bands, it’s vital to use that valuable rehearsal time to rehearse as a band, rather than noodle around.

Once a band finds itself in the perfect center of this Venn diagram, it must then have a read of – or listen to – Mr. Gerber’s book to understand fully that industry they are operating in is called show-business, not show-play. A band is a business. It needs management and marketing just like any other entrepreneurial undertaking. That means boring stuff like budgets, contracts, bank accounts, insurance, punctuality, advertising, competitive analysis, pricing strategies and a business plan. That’s not so much fun, but there’s the rub. Without all of these items backing you up, the band will just fall back in on itself.

Have a look at these guys. Read up on them. From their earliest days back in NYC as Wicked Lester, Gene and Paul had a business plan to create a product. Not just play music, but create a product filled with marketing and branding excellence. Remember the KISS Army? This was a major step up from the fan clubs created for the Beatles and people like that.

You might not want to look and sound like KISS, but have a look at how they put on a show. It’s an experience. There are many other acts you could choose to study in place of KISS if you want. Alice Cooper and Meatloaf were part of the first rockers to put choreography into their acts, paving the way for people like Madonna and Lady Gaga. Garth Brooks, the Foo Fighters, and Taylor Swift are role models of a hugely satisfying, yet largely unadorned spectacle. They don’t wear kabuki makeup, but their energy and sheer strength of performance surpasses the songs’ own impact. Of course Mariah Cary, J-Lo and a host of others now fully understand the importance of visual amazingness in their concerts.

The point is, regardless of the ultimate goals of a band, whether it’s to play professional festivals like SXSW or simply a local pub, the odds of getting there increase when a business approach is used. Although most musicians say they play music in part to get away from the trappings of the business world, it cannot be denied that music is a business and performing it is a product. So alongside the biographies of your favorite music heroes, it might be a good idea to also have a copy of the E-Myth Revisited.

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Discovering the Amazing Portable Universe of the iRig and Amplitube

This image belongs to the Men In Black people. I’m just borrowing it to make a point.

There is a scene at the very end of Men In Black II where J and K open an exit door to reveal an entire universe that earthlings know nothing about. It’s more than just a door. It’s a portal. And I know it’s just a movie and this might sound like a stretch, but that’s kind of how I felt when I brought home an iRig and its Amplitube iPhone app.

When my last teeny tiny mini practice amp (a VOX headphone amp) got broken, I wandered down to the local music store to get a new one. Before shelling out the required $60 Canadian for a replacement, I had a quick look around to see what else was there, and that’s how I came across the iRig. It was on sale for $49.95 so it became immediately more attractive. I assumed it was an Apple product because of its name, but it isn’t. I also assumed it would be just another pocket amplifier, handy for practicing and playing along to my Spotify playlist. But it wasn’t that either. I soon discovered it was a lot more than that.

The iRig is part of a family of products made by IK Multimedia in Modena, Italy. The company is staffed by sound engineering geniuses who accurately and faithfully replicate the sounds of world famous amps, cabinets, microphones and pedals. They make it all available as a virtual studio that lives on your phone, computer or tablet. (They make more than just the iRig and Amplitube, but I’m just going to focus on them for the moment.)

Part of the Amplitube pedalboard.

Discovering the Amplitube app was an eye-opening moment. As a teaser it provides you with a couple of amps and a few free pedals. The amps are brand name – Fender, Marshall, Mesa Boogie. The pedals are thinly disguised and very identifiable replicas of famous brands like MXR.

The people at IKMultimedia are obviously passionate about detail. Nothing escapes their notice. On the sound side they seem to be able to bend heaven and earth to replicate the sound of, say, an 1967 Fender Twin with a slight nick on the speaker cone and some wear and tear on the casing. If you don’t like how that sounds, you can move your virtual Sennheiser mic a few inches back, or maybe swap out one of the speakers for another brand. They are that focused. The detail can also be seen in the casings of the products. Whether it’s the virtual pedals or the virtual rack mounted effects, they have captured the brushed aluminum, the yellow bulbs inside the VU meter windows, the sheen of light on the plastic knobs, even the texture of masking tape hastily placed across a scuffed and beaten Fuzz.

It’s truly amazing to experience the sheer variety of the products, not to mention the quality of the sounds they produce. This is why the Men In Black II scene comes to mind. My purchase of this simple iRig was like opening a dor onto the world’s largest music store.

I am nowhere famous enough to be paid to write this, by the way. This is not some sort of thinly disguised ad. I am writing it because as a musician grew up with stomp boxes (mainly BOSS), and analog tape recorders, to be let loose in the freemium world of Amplitube, especially with its painstakingly produced vintage retro packaging, is quite mind-boggling.

How Does it Fare in a Live Setting?

Naturally, because my personal passion is live performance, as compared to studio recording or composing, I want to know how all this cool stuff would stand up to the stage. First, I had to get my head around the idea of going direct through the board. There’s no need for an amp or pedals when you have it all on your iPad. Second I had to get used to the idea of playing through an iPad. This, too, seems crazy at first glance, but when you think that most pedals and amps now have circuit boards and software inside them, it’s kind of a fait accompli.

But is it cool to have an iPad or PC sitting onstage with you? Keyboard players get to do it after all.

So maybe an all-virtual backline is the way to go.

I learned that I wouldn’t need to have to whip out my phone between songs to change settings. Not when there’s one of these available!  This is the iRig StompIO, a floor mounted control panel for your Amplitube presets. As you can see it comfortably cradles your iPad and even recharges it while you play.

Does it work? Is it safe to go onstage with the same iPad that has my TurboTax files and my family photos on it? I expect so. Truth is, I haven’t tried it in a live setting yet, because I am still discovering the parallel world of onboard amp modelling software on my BOSS Katana. But hey! Who’s to say I can’t do both?

So for now I use the iRig and a selection of pedals for practicing when I am on the road on business without my music gear. Maybe within the year I will be able to post a follow-up blog with my experiences playing a gig through the StompIO.

In the meantime, if anyone actually reads this and has had some experience with it, I would love to read your comments.

 

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Celebrating The Contemporary Youth Orchestra

YES frontman Jon Anderson and drummer Alan White, and in the background, some of the kids from CYO.

The first time I encountered the Contemporary Youth Orchestra was watching a YouTube video of Yes performing I’ve Seen All Good People [see it here]. Yes is a formidable live band unto themselves, but the performance was made simply magical by the kids from the CYO.

Everyone looked like they were having such fun, in fact everyone, even the ever-focused Steve Howe. But is was the kids that made it all so wonderful. Whether they were hard at work playing their brass, woodwinds or strings, or hand-jiving together in the background, they epitomized the joy of live music.

I had to search around to find out who they were, but once I found their website I discovered an amazing collection of young musicians, learning the business from teaching and conducting legend Liza Grossman.

Based in Cleveland, Ohio, the CYO has worked with an impressive group of artists and performers, who obviously recognize the members’ talent and energy. It is evident in the way they work together that everyone benefits, and that these kids have great futures in the entertainment business. Some of the big names who have rehearsed and performed with the CYO include Graham Nash, Ben Folds, Styx, Pat Benatar, Melissa Etheridge, Jason Mraz, Jon Anderson, and Yes.

Styx, backed up by CYO – I Am the Walrus

For me, one of the most memorable of their many notable performances, is The Beatles’ I Am the Walrus, with Styx. That’s not an easy tune! It’s like taking on Bohemian Rhapsody. It has time signature changes and chords you just don’t see every day.

Themed Performances

When you visit the Explore page of the CYO website, you find out that there is much more to the orchestra than doing live concerts with rock stars. Some of their recent performances have featured Disney/Pixar movie tunes, West African concertos, Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir, and many others.

The orchestra its members are truly inspirational. I am not affiliated with them in any way. I simply have a passion for live performance and seeing people become completely in the magic of the music, whether they are musicians or audience members. The CYO delivers on both counts.

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Remembering Chris Squire

Yes, going round and round and round…

A year has come and gone since the passing of Yes bassist Chris Squire, and his absence is palpable. I was lucky enough to see him twice, during the In The Round tour of 1978, supporting the Drama album, and then in 2013 in Massey Hall, Toronto.

Although I have been a fan of Yes since the mid 1970’s I never truly appreciated the enormous musical power provided by Squire and his road-worn Rickenbacker.

Whereas many bass players are content to stand back and drive the bus, Squire was never in the background, literally or musically. His enormous persona dominated the live stage. He strode around like a Tolkien giant, conducting his band mates and the audience simultaneously, alternately scowling in concentration and then beaming with satisfaction.

But it was his virtuosity as a musician that was really head and shoulders above most of his contemporaries. For Yes, the bass was never just an device that delivered the bottom end of a tune. Squire played it as a full instrument, delivering lines and counter melodies in exquisite harmonies – often minor – to those being played by the equally fiery fingers of the other brilliant musicians who were part of the lineup at one time or another.

Squire played bass the way Bach wrote his fugues. Melodies crossed over each other with force, yet with delicate balance. I would love to have been a fly on the wall in the recording studio, watching the collective genius of Squire, Howe, Anderson et al as they pieced together their tunes.

I am also fascinated by successful musicians like Squire who hang on to the same guitar for decades, as he did with his cream colored Rickenbacker. Like so many others, he had the money and pretty much every instrument manufacturer on the planet eager to give him a guitar or ten to play and endorse, And yes, he did have a few of those. But above it all, he stayed with his 1965 Rickenbacker, through re-paintings, neck shavings and even the odd piece on it that didn’t work. I love that. Andy Summers of the Police and his beat-up double coil Telecaster; Sir Paul and his Hofner Beatlebass. Brian May’s Red Special. It’s wonderful when these people stick with their favorite instrument like an old sweater, even in spite of the carefully made replicas available.

There is some fabulous pro-shot footage of Yes playing live in 2002, which shows the band in top form. Everyone seems to be smiling, and the chemistry between Squire and drummer Alan White seems to be extremely strong. They close with I’ve Seen All Good People, and the show is made even more powerful by the presence of the awesome Contemporary Youth Orchestra. Here’s the link to YouTube.

With Squire’s untimely passing, the band has moved into a new edition, with longtime sideman Billy Sherwood taking on the task of filling Squire’s enormous shoes, again, both literally and metaphorically.

There are sadly very few bassists who are recognized for their virtuosity, stepping over that line from fancy bass work to actual composition. Sir Paul is one, certainly, Geddy Lee, absolutely, and Les Claypool. I find the hallmark of great music to be something you can play over and over again and never tire of it. In large part due to the sophisticated layering of so many great musicians, much of the Yes catalog fits into that category, thanks to the genius of Mr. Chris Squire.

 

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Billy Joel: A nod and a wink to 19,000 friends

Billy Joel, Toronto, March 2014. Photo by Steve Prentice.

Billy Joel, Toronto, March 2014. Photo by Steve Prentice. (That’s why it’s so far away)

I had the privilege of seeing Billy Joel play Toronto’s Air Canada Center this past Sunday, and it was a treat. Having seen many pro bands deliver tight, well rehearsed 3-hour shows as part of a multi-city concert tour, it is easy to get used to cool professionalism washed in the magic purple of stage lighting. But with Billy Joel, you get all of that along with a remarkable intimacy that turns the cavernous concert arena into a merely oversized cocktail bar, with the seasoned piano man himself tinkling the ivories.

His opening joke – “Billy Joel couldn’t make it tonight – I’m his father”  actually works, especially when he pauses, mid monologue, to look up at himself on the scoreboard jumbotron thing, and say, “I look so much like my old man…” before turning back to the crowd with that twinkle in his eye that seems to say that he genuinely enjoys sharing these anecdotes and stories with an appreciative crowd.

It makes you wonder whether the spontaneous rendition of Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind” was truly spontaneous – I mean did the band rehearse, or are they, as I would like to believe – just that good that they can play any tune that the master summons up?

The show moved through a number of his lesser-known pieces, such as Vienna, before ending up with his most successful upbeat rock tunes. Even the train wreck that occurred during “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” where he tripped over the words after straying too far from the teleprompter and forced the band to restart did nothing to calm the energy of the full house crowd that stayed standing through the entire  second half of the show.

Billy Joel, Toronto, March 9, 2014. Photo credit - someone who posted on Twitter.

Billy Joel, Toronto, March 9, 2014. Photo credit – someone who posted on Twitter.

He is a giant in the business, but he talks to his audience like he is everyone’s grandpa now, the way Bill Cosby does. Responding to a song request shouted out from one of the front rows, he said, “No! I’m 65. I’ll get to it when I’m ready!” But again, the wink and the smile in his voice showed a good-natured comfort that can only come from decades of live performance.

Technical virtuosity aside, what struck me the most about Billy Joel was the way he connected with the audience. He knew he was actually in Toronto (not every act seems to know or care where they are), and his stories of playing Massey Hall and Maple Leaf Gardens, and his recognition that his absence from the city during the 2003 SARS outbreak meant that “we sucked here for a while” added a connection that everyone felt. It was also appreciated by many that his drummer wore a Maple Leafs jersey.

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Bob Culbertson and the Chapman Stick

Bob Culbertson playing on Pier 39, San Francisco, August 2013

Bob Culbertson playing on Pier 39, San Francisco, August 2013

Walking along the Embarcadero in San Francisco very recently, I heard the most beautiful music floating across the late afternoon breeze. It sounded like a trio, playing a gorgeous flowing piece of easy-listening jazz; there was no percussion, but something that sounded like a marimba, accompanying a harp or two – an actual sit down harp, not a harmonica.

I approached Pier 39 in search of the trio, but what I found was something and someone far more amazing. I had discovered Bob Culbertson, master of the Chapman Stick. He was playing a tune I did not recognize, but I stood enthralled for a full ten minutes, listening, for it sounded like he carried an entire band in his two hands.

The Chapman Stick: where guitar meets piano.

The Chapman Stick: where guitar meets piano.

I had never seen a Chapman Stick in person before. It is a remarkable instrument that resembles the neck of a guitar, but longer, and with no actual body. It is worn vertically, from belt buckle to shoulder and is played with both hands primarily pressing the strings down onto the frets. There are different models, having either 8, 10 or 12 strings, with the heavier bass notes in the centre, and lighter melodic notes toward the outside.

The result of this complex playing arrangement, at least in the hands of a master, is remarkable, and Bob Culbertson is indeed a master. His slender fingers walked up and down the Stick’s fretboard, threading their way constantly and carefully to new footfalls. The was no dramatic strumming, as guitarists are prone to do, no rocking of the body as pianists do, and of course no sharp intakes of breath as horn players most do. Instead the music just came from this delicate dancing caress, and it was remarkable.

Dubbed “The Segovia of the Stick,” Bob’s playing delivers everything that a jazz trio can do. Sensitive, captivating melodies backed by a walking bass line, with counterpoints weaving seemingly effortlessly between. That one person can keep track of so much and deliver so much is truly amazing.

Many years ago when Stanley Jordan was still relatively unknown, people marvelled at the idea that music could be drawn from a fretted string instrument by hammering rather than plucking. I remember hearing a jazz station DJ introducing a Jordan track one time by daring the listeners to believe him when he said there was only one musician playing.

The hammering technique for guitar has a number of masters and devotees. In Toronto we are lucky enough to have an amazing player by the name of Andrew Lopatin who actually plays in the subways. He too, is worth stopping and listening to, even if you are late for work.

But the Chapman Stick goes far beyond what a six or seven string guitar can do. It has a soft, flowing musicality that truly benefits from sensitive pickups doing the work of amplification. It is not well known in popular music circles; perhaps the most well-known player is Tony Levin, an alumnus of King Crimson, and acts as diverse as Mike Oldfield, the Blue Man Group and the Dave Mathews Band have also experimented with it.

Listening to Bob Culbertson play is simply awe inspiring. There are moments when it seems he is not actually playing at all, but merely holding the Stick upright, while it does the work. But that’s an unfair description. Bob is a master – one of those extraordinary musicians who becomes part of the music. It flows through him, to the instrument. Glenn Gould, the pianist, was like that. So was Vladimir Horowitz. Robin Williams and Eddie Izzard share this talent in storytelling and comedy. There is something that seems to go beyond mere practice and delivery, beyond merely working an instrument to make art. With artists like Bob, there doesn’t seem to be any force required. He simply lets the music descend into him and play itself on the strings.

But it would be unfair too to dismiss all the years of hard work and practice that Bob must have put into his craft. His face is placid as he plays, but his eyes are sharp. He scans the crowd, singling out those who truly enjoy the music and he makes a true connection.

Thankfully, for those who cannot get to San Francisco to see him, his music is available online, and this is obviously the easiest way to experience his true genius. His website is www.stickmusic.com.

For me, a musician who has always struggled to make a guitar do what it is supposed to do, it is a rare privilege to look over the fence and observe a true virtuoso – someone who is a conduit of melody – and to partake in its all encompassing beauty.

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Why I Admire Performers Like Mariah Carey

Mariah Carey

Mariah Carey

To be honest, I have never given Mariah Carey much thought. As an aging rocker raised on Elton John, Paul McCartney and U2, I have certainly experienced my share of glamorous musicians and diva antics, but I have never had much time for warbling femme-fatales, and so she, along with Celine Dion and Beyoncé have always been kept in a soundproof box in the back of my mind. To be fair, I admire any entertainer who can stand up in front of a crowd and wow them, regardless of the type of music they perform, so I never went so far as to say mean things about them. Its just that the specific tone of their singing never appealed to me. OK, maybe Cher once in a while, but I have always preferred female performers with a little more of a gruff edge, like Melissa Etheridge and Susan Tedeschi, and a little less time spent in the makeup chair. This (photo upper-right) is how I have always understood Mariah Carey to look. I figured this was probably actually her passport photo, given how glamorous she is.

So it amazed me when I saw her in one of the best movies I have ever seen, Precious, by Lee Daniels. This is a tough movie to watch. It is gritty, brutal and extremely memorable. The performance by Gabourey Sidibe was stellar, but in my opinion the show was completely stolen by Mo’Nique, who is better known as a comedienne.

Mo’Nique played a real SOB of a mom. A TV-addicted welfare case who treated her daughter worse than dirt. And it is only (SPOILER ALERT) during her tour-de-fource scene at the end of the film do you truly find out why. Her character was not a pretty character, but Mo’Nique played it well.

Mariah Carey was in this movie too. She played the social worker who sought to understand and fix the problems in Precious’s life. And she looked like this.

Also Mariah Carey

Also Mariah Carey

No makeup. No big hair. No radiant skin. She looked like every other 9-to-5 schmoe out there who has a job to do, but who doesn’t really like it very much.

I find it extremely admirable when beautiful celebrities shed their skin and reveal to the world that beneath it all, they are still one of us. They weren’t born looking like Halle Berry (OK, maybe Halle Berry was). They were lucky enough to make it big in a vicious industry where most fall away, and their product is big, wonderful excessive enormousness.

So I salute both Mariah Carey and Mo’Nique for taking what some might consider a big risk in appearing on the big screen in all their plain normality. To me this only makes them more beautiful.

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What if John Lennon had lived?

John LennonI was sitting in a Starbucks recently and a track from John Lennon’s Double Fantasy came over the restaurant’s sound system. I was 15 years old when that album came out, and had already been a Beatles/Lennon fan for a decade. I remember how that album, from the first three bell tones of its first hit single Just Like Starting Over seemed to herald a new age for this brilliant songwriter. Clean and sober, ready to literally start over, ready to share his remarkable talents with the world once again.

Lennon seemed to possess a triple threat as a songwriter: brilliant wordplay combined with enormous tenderness, as well as the ability to create memorable hooks or riffs that guaranteed permanent implant into a listener’s ears and heart.

His death happened long before the age of social media or even cellphones. In an era when newspapers and television reigned, expressions of regret over his death came from all corners of the globe, even from the dark interiors of the Soviet Union, an unheard-of connection with the West which presaged the fall of the Berlin Wall and of the Soviet system itself. It showed just how pervasive beautiful music actually was; to penetrate the darkest, most oppressive areas of the world, to flourish among its people.

Obviously the songwriting team of Lennon & McCartney produced a dizzying collection of monster hits, any one of which most bands would trade their souls to claim as their own. And Sir Paul has continued to thrive, creating beautiful pop tunes, and entertaining well into his seventh decarde.

But Lennon had a deeper, more introspective style. He seemed able to touch people with his poetry, cynicism, and his message of peace in a way that went beyond music itself. Dare I say that his approach was on par with the peaceful “non-action” actions of people such as Gandhi and Mandela. Yes, these men suffered much more, but all three changed the world through non-violence and sheer charisma.

Others have come along to attempt to fill the Lennon shoes: Bono comes to mind. Yet for all of  Bono’s star power, there seems to be something essentially corporate about him. He has the power to flirt with world leaders, he speaks at Davos, and can look the Pope in the eye, but he seems, at least to this observer, to still be one of them. Lennon was never one of them. How would the various leaders of the world’s countries and multinationals have responded to his political fearlessness?

How different would the world be if Lennon had not been taken from us?

Take 9/11, for example. For such a tragedy to unfold right in the middle of Lennon’s beloved adopted hometown. What tune could he have written? What call for global peace could have been wrung from his soul to match and exceed the magnitude of this carnage? I believe the world would by now have a new and universal anthem for peace, had he had the chance to write it; a magnum opus from a man dedicated to non violence.

And what of any additional work with McCartney? There is no doubt they would have come back together. The world would have demanded it.

Of course I could be totally wrong. Maybe he would have turned into a parody of himself, botoxed, facelifted, and unwilling to let go of his youth, like Steven Tyler.  Maybe he would have matured into a genteel older version of himself, like Sting or Peter Gabriel. Or maybe he would have died anyway, from something natural or unnatural. But had he been able to have stayed with us, his words and art would still have to come out. He would have been a force to be reckoned with, creatively, socially, politically and musically.

He left behind both towering achievements and an indefinable void, with the rest of us just wondering what might have been.

 

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