Category Archives: Musical Cities

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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Ike Turner’s Pantsuit is in Beijing

The Bar at the Hard Rock Café, Beijing

The Bar at the Hard Rock Café, Beijing

Just got back from a trip to Beijing – a wild place – the biggest city I have ever seen – glass high-rises form the canyon walls, eight-lane streets from the canyon floors, and they extend in every direction. In Beijing, drivers use the gas-pedal-and-horn technique. No braking. Cars slip in and out of lanes like fish moving around  a coral reef, and if there’s no room to park on the street, then they park on the pavement.

A welcome respite from the furious, progress-tinged pace of Chinese life is the Hard Rock Café, located sort of up-and-to-the-right of the Forbidden City, nestled in a grove of upscale Western hotels, not too far from Embassy row. As fascinating as Chinese life is, the Café is a wonderful oasis, where the music of Elvis, The Pretenders and the Stray Cats complement onion rings, burgers and (gasps with delight) Guinness. The large central area has a stage, already set up with drums, guitars and mikes. And around the walls are the glass cases containing guitars from McCartney’s Wings, Tom Petty, and Prince, just to name a few. One-piece outfits belonging to Elvis, Ike Turner and even Fred from the B-52’s stand silently in glass cases, and there’s even a row of signed drumheads.

I guess the Hard Rock is like Starbucks for the musically inclined: a consistent customer experience that varies little from city to city. Beijing is a fabulous place, especially if you like high speed and crowds, which I do, but I tell you, two hours at the Hard Rock was an oasis of the cool, beautiful glamour of Rock, Soul, Blues and Motown.

Hard Rock Café Memorabilia

Hard Rock Café Memorabilia

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Walkin’ in Memphis

Memphis - Beale Street

Memphis: Beale Street. Everyone who is anyone has played here.

I went down to Memphis in the Spring of 2010. I wish I could say we went down as a band, but that time has not quite come yet. I went down on business, but mainly so that I could walk the streets of that hallowed city. It isn’t hyperbole to say that there truly is something in the air down there. Beale Street at midnight. That’s where it happens. A couple of blocks closed to traffic, and almost every establishment jumping with the sound of blues, soul, funk, played by people who really should be doing it professionally, on tour with the greats of the business. Who knows, maybe some of them do. I stepped into B.B. King’s and watched in awe. One guitar player looked like Matt “Guitar” Murphy. The other looked like John Byner, the comedian. He played a Strat upside-down, the way Hendrix did, but musically he played like Stevie Ray, except his face constantly was contorting with grimaces and and open-mouthed stares, as he pulled every note – note perfect – out of himself and through his beat-up instrument.

Memphis breathes music. Around the corner from Beale Street is the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, where sequined and fur-lined jumpsuits belonging to the King, as well as to Isaac Hayes and a host of other giants, nestle quietly and forever, alongside the mixing consoles from Sun Studios and from Stax Records, and guitars from Carl Perkins.

Between Beale Street and the Museum, and just up a slight rise that makes up part of the banks of the Mississippi, is a statue of a young Elvis, hips and acoustic guitar swinging.

Steve outside Graceland

Steve outside Graceland.

I had a driver who took me to Graceland, which was once a stately mansion, but now looks more like “just” an affluent home. Nice, to be sure, but not on par size-wise with the mega-homes of the Billy Joels of the world. Elvis might have owned two planes (they’re parked across the street), but he couldn’t have taxied either one of them into the foyer, which I think Billy Joel can, and John Travolta still does. My driver patiently took my picture outside the gates of Graceland, and was able to keep the shot tight enough so that the gas station and the fast food restaurants that now flank the estate did not make it into the picture. But of course, the mansion’s true size is in its history. What it stands for as a home and shrine. It is worth the detour to see it.

I have been lucky to have visited many cities in my day, but few come close to having the palpable air of the love of music that Memphis has. New Orleans, yes. Parts of New York City, perhaps. But it seems to all come together, there, next to the big gray river, and it’s a place to which I long to return.

– Steve

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