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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God Made Me Funky: A Mighty, Singularly Excellent Sound

Publicity shot of God Made Me Funky from their website. Photo credit: Arthur Mola

Publicity shot of God Made Me Funky from their website. Photo credit: Arthur Mola

Walking through the crowded closed-off stretch of Toronto’s Queen Street East during the middle of the Beaches Jazz Festival tonight (July 26 2013), a few questions came to mind.

  1. Why do they call it the “Beaches Jazz Festival” when Toronto’s fine citizens voted just a couple of years ago to name this area of town “The Beach” and not “The Beaches,” even though the latter sounds better to me?
  2. Why also do they call it the “Beaches Jazz Festival” when so little jazz is actually played? Maybe I arrived on “Funk and Disco” night, because most of the dozen or more bands I saw were playing material that was definitely not jazz. It was good, it was energetic and the crowds were loving it, but it was not jazz.
  3. Who decided to post a band every half-a-block? Obviously someone not familiar with outdoor acoustics. Every street corner had a band pumping out high-energy music, not only to stir the relaxed crowd into movement – (even nodding heads in time with the music would do, people!), but also to drown  each other out, or risk being drowned out themselves.
  4. Who brings small dogs to a crowded street festival? They are way too small to be seen by people who are looking through the crowd for their next source of entertainment or food, and the poor little things must be frightened to death by the din of the music and so many legs.

Regardless, the festival was great, and the weather was perfect. The bands themselves were tight. As per usual, many of the musicians were busy reading their charts rather than making eye contact with their audience, so I must assume they were having fun, inside their cones of concentration.

As we headed back through the throng after having traversed the length of the festival’s six (or more?) blocks, we stopped at a crowded Starbucks for a coffee, and that’s when the magic happened. Because that’s where God Made Me Funky was playing.  GMMF is a Toronto-area band that does funk right, because they actually look like they are having fun. Here’s what amazed me about them:

  1. Their act was tight: the tunes they played were flawless. Like, Prince-level flawless. Pauses, time changes, call-and-answers, every note, every beat, every hand gesture and eye contact was spot on. These guys were not introspectively grooving to the tunes inside their heads; they were painting the audience with big fat brushes full of music. Just lathering it on.
  2. Their act was fun. Like Barenaked Ladies fun; Like Black Eyed Peas fun. They enjoyed playing and they enjoyed charging the audience with their power. Although they have probably played this show a thousand times, they looked like it was a thrill to be playing with each other, and that there was a real party going on.
  3. The whole band was in on it. Like Frank Zappa. Like Louis Prima’s band. Like Great Big Sea. It wasn’t just the front line singers making the moves. The rhythm section didn’t just stand back and drive the bus. They all worked the line. The musicians played wireless. They hopped to the foreground and rolled back again. They wove in and out. They played!
  4. Their sound was singular. Like Beatles singular. Most bands I hear, including my own, tend to sound like four or five musicians playing along to the same tune. But GMMF does what the Beatles and Prince do: they do not sound like “so many performers;” they play so tightly that it becomes one big, clearly beautiful sound. Perfectly balled up as a solid chunk of funk, everything clear – the vocals, the drums, everything where it should be, but all part of a bigger sound rather than just a band. Like the vocals of Lennon, McCartney and Harrison never sounded like three guys – they sounded like one really big unique thing.

Am I gushing? Well. just a little. I have been trying to get performers to understand this concept for years. A live band plays for its audience. It must deliver a package. Rehearsals are where the tightness comes from. It sucks in all the energy, so that it can be blown back into the crowd come performance time. People need to see a band having fun, and performers need to know how to perform, not just play.

I can understand now why GMMF plays so many dates. They are a live act that just keeps giving to its audience through well-honed professionalism combined with true Canadian charm. Check them out wherever you can. This is a link to their website. They might even make you funky.

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Choosing a band or a DJ: What to do?

Absolutely Jack - Live Music delivers great memoriesWhen you are looking to entertain your guests, one of the primary questions regarding entertainment is whether to hire a live band or a DJ to deliver the music. The choice generally is easy: it comes down to cost, and DJ’s are cheaper. They play the exact tunes that your guests know and love from the radio and YouTube, and given that they are usually a group of one, maybe two, they will likely be more reliable in terms of showing up.

DJs provide a great service, much like Starbucks or Subway do: a consistent packaged product, tweaked for your own preference, at a reasonable price.

However, most event planners and brides that I know do not consider Starbucks or Subway when selecting a caterer. They want a team of people who will deliver excellent food, prepared specifically for the event, in a professional and dignified manner. And that, believe it or not, is what great event bands do. They are not wild rock and rollers; they are focused on delivering a unique excellent multisensory product that generates a sense of event.

A great band generates excitement and feeds it to the audience: live musicians are alive. They see the audience and the audience sees them. There is a personal connection; eye to eye, smile to smile. A live band can see what works, what motivates people to dance, what makes them happy. They deliver music as a gift – carefully created and hand delivered. It is a very personal experience.

A great band knows a lot of tunes and can play what your audience wants. A great band consults with the client; works with the client to determine which tunes and sequences would work best. A great band is responsible enough to rehearse regularly and fully, so that the delivery of the tunes is respectful, to both the audience and to the original artist. Most bands are not tribute acts. They interpret tunes faithfully and assign the singing duties to those who can best deliver. They have a wide range of tunes to pull from, and their experience helps deliver them in the most effective manner.

A great band is a special event :  a sense of occasion. Your guests see people on stage; talented musicians who are ready to give their all for the audience’s enjoyment. This performance will be unique; no other party or bride will have exactly the same collection of tunes, jokes, comments and special memories. Their product is as valuable as the food on the tables and atmosphere of the event itself.

A great band looks great. They dress the part. They dress to impress the audience, to look like something special. They are great-looking people holding great -looking instruments, under great looking lighting. There is a certain wonder to seeing musicians; they hold the key to the magic of an evening. They deliver energy and enjoyment. You only have to look at the air-guitar players that every audience reveals that show just how many people wish it was them up there on that stage, looking cool, delivering the pleasure.  It’s not just the music. It’s a whole look and feel.

A great band means the music does not have to stop. Event planners often worry that the music and momentum stops the moment the musicians take a break. But great bands are already on top of that, ensuring additional music is made available over the PA during the breaks. The momentum never ends, but the excitement always rebuilds when an audience sees a band return to the stage and pick up their instruments.

A great band has passion. Musicians love to play music and it shows. They live to deliver joy to audiences, and audiences pick up on this. It becomes part of the vibe of the moment and of the memories that last long after.

A great band is reliable. Working musicians are craftspeople, not divas or rock stars. They understand the importance of an event, and they understand that the event starts long before its actual date: planning and preparation are essential.  A great band works hard to make its clients’ lives easier and stress-free by removing the worries about hiring a group of musicians. A great band shows up early, sets up and sound checks efficiently and with respect to others who are also setting up. They constantly monitor for satisfaction and take care to craft their performance in an agile way that rides the momentum of the event. Great bands are all about excellence in customer service throughout the entire multi-week life of an event.

Are great bands expensive? Well, they cost more than DJs do. But they deliver more also. A band of three or four or even six musicians represents decades of practice, education and experience in the business of delivering a quality product.  Like a great catering company, chef, emcee or event planner, their value is in their experience and professionalism, and their price reflects that. Great bands need never be prohibitively expensive; but they do deliver above and beyond what they charge. They deliver a very human and very tangible emotional product that is more than just music. It is an integral part of the event itself.

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Yes! You Can!

Yes at Massey Hall, April 11, 2013.

Yes at Massey Hall, April 11, 2013.

We went to see Yes play at Toronto’s Massey Hall yesterday (April 11). That’s my back-of-the hall iPhone photo. They delivered a flawless performance, playing three albums in their entirety, and ending with “Roundabout.” Just like the Rolling Stones and so many others, they dispel the myth that live performers have an expiry date, and though most of the Yes line-up are now in their sixties, they powered through the tunes with a crisp accuracy that very few bands can attain. Massey Hall has excellent acoustics, and the signature sounds of Yes – Chris Squire’s custom-wired Rickenbacker 4001, and Steve Howe’s crystal-clear guitars reached all the way up to the nosebleed seats.

So, indeed most of the band members are in their sixties, but not so the lead vocalist, Jon Davison. Jon is amazing. He sings with pronounced passion and soul in the demanding alto range established by his predecessor, Jon Anderson. Even their names are strikingly similar. He blends so well with the music and looks so happy up on stage, it was hard to believe he is such a new addition to this giant of a band.

Yes frontman Jon Davison. Photo from Wikipedia.

Yes frontman Jon Davison. Photo from Wikipedia.

His story, too, is an amazing one, mostly because he has lived the dream of many hundreds-of thousands of musicians: he went from fronting a tribute band to fronting the band itself. How unbelievably cool is that?

According to Wikipedia, Jon was a musician friend of Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins, and long story short, Hawkins was also a friend of Chris Squire. So the connection was made.

An ironic twist here – Davison actually replaced another tribute band frontman, Benoit David of Montreal, who was the first to take the heat from Yes purists for replacing Jon Anderson, and who was sidelined, just like Anderson, with respiratory issues.

So along comes Jon Davison, and his voice peals beautifully through the complex verses of 1970’s Yes, and captures the spacey, lyrical Roger Dean-ish mindscapes that most members of last night’s audience grew up on.

For someone such as myself, who relishes virtuoso musical performance, and who strives to play as accurately and as soulfully as his own minor talent will allow, to watch truly gifted artists at work is an absolute pleasure, and to see artists such as Davison literally fill the space between legends such as Squire, Howe, Alan White and Geoff Downes, adds an additional vicarious thrill.

Yes has a gruelling tour schedule ahead of them. I wish them many, many standing ovations along the way. They deserve them all.

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Eric Clapton, George Harrison and Lucy

They all loved Lucy.

They all loved Lucy.

Today (March 30) is Eric Clapton’s birthday. Of course the man needs no introduction, so I would rather talk about Lucy. Mr. Clapton is known as one of the pre-eminent and most famous users of the Fender Stratocaster, definitely a guitar that suits his clean and melodic style. But he was not always a Strat man. Back in the days of Cream and the Yardbirds, Eric played Les Pauls and Firebirds. He was a Gibson guy.

One of the most famous Les Pauls in rock history, then, has to be Lucy, the red 1957 Les Paul Goldtop upon which Clapton played the beautiful solo on George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”

According to Wikipedia, the guitar was first owned by John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful, who then gave it to Rick Derringer in a trade for an amp.  The finish became very worn, so Derringer’s father took it back to the Gibson shop where it was repainted red. Derringer did not like the feel of the repainted guitar, so he sold it to a New York music shop, where Eric Clapton found it and bought it. He played it for a while, but because he “already had a Les Paul” he gave it to George Harrison. George was struggling with the writing of “Gently Weeps” so he invited Clapton to come to the recording session. Clapton noted that George’s solo didn’t sound “Beatle-y” enough, so he sat down and delivered. Again, according to Wikipedia, “Clapton laid down the track in a single take; but later stated that he was so high at the time he doesn’t remember it at all.”  George kept the guitar, but it was stolen during a robbery of his Beverly Hills home in 1973, where it traded hands a couple of times, it went to Mexico and eventually was recovered by trading a couple of other guitars. George kept Lucy, and presumably it is still part of his estate.

This leaves me with a couple of questions:

With so many guitars in the world, how come just a handful get to live storied lives like this one?

And also, these musicians have piles of money and access to all kinds of instruments. How come they lend and borrow from each other like this? I think it’s cool, but are they really that stuck for a good guitar? George Harrison’s brown Telecaster has a similar story. It was given to him by Joe Walsh.

It all makes for wonderful lore, and it certainly helps out the marketing of high-end Signature series reproduction guitars, but you have to wonder a.) whether these stories are true; b.) whether any of the world’s greatest guitar solos would have happened the same way if they had just picked up any old studio guitar lying around;  and c.) whether they will live on for centuries, like Stradivarius violins, to be played by successive generations of gifted artists.

Anyway, happy birthday, Mr Clapton. Thank you for making it all look so easy.

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Steven Tyler and the power of networking

Steven Tyler and Joe Perry getting along for once...

Steven Tyler and Joe Perry getting along for once…

Today (March 26) is Steven Tyler’s birthday. As the flamboyant frontman of Aerosmith he has made a great living playing in and leadig one of the world’s most famous rock bands, while not taking himself too seriously. The staccato vocal rhythm prevalent in a lot of his tunes comes fromthe fact he was a drummer first, playing drums in his upstate New York hometown. He also learned a great deal about coposition by sitting under the piano in his home while his father, a classical musician, played. He would write tunes with “two hands” in mind, and would go back the studio and say “bass, you play what my left hand is doing on the piano – yes, he can play piano too — and guitar, you play what my right hand is doing. So as weird and strung-out as he may still appear, he is a wise man of rock – very smart in both the ochestartion of tunes and of course the choreography of a great live show.

But as with many immortal partnerships (Lennon & McCartney, Jagger & Richards, Elton & Bernie) the soul-mate connection between Tyler and his amazing guitar player Joe Perry leaves us with the intriguing thought of what might have happened if they never hooked up. According to Tyler’s excellent autobiography, Do The Noises In My Head Bother You (which is even better as an audiobook, read by Tyler sound-alike Jeremy Davidson), Perry was playing around in other bands, and it was only the connection they had to a summer camp that got them together. Perry, as a teenager, was the fry-cook there.

Now this may not be networking in the truest sense of the word, but it goes to show just how much fate pays a major part in our lives. If Tyler had not gone back to that summer camp, would we have Aerosmith? If Jagger and Richards had not bumped into each other and started talking about blues records, would the Stones ever have existed? If Reg Dwight and Bernie Taupin had not seen and answered the same newspaper ad, well, who knows?

One of the greatest stepping-stones to personal success and satisfaction comes from the people you know. They provide opportunities, for business, for gigs, for advancement in all areas of life. When we reflect on all of the great might-have-beens and all of the great victories, they are usually due to being in the right place at the right time – with someone else.

Your personal network is your best tool for getting ahead, and should really be nurtured every day.

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Here’s to Zappacosta

Playing the the Blue Frog Studios. Click to wath the video on YouTube.

Playing the the Blue Frog Studios. Click to watch the video on YouTube.

Recently we played a birthday gig in Toronto, and our client requested that we play a tune by Alfie Zappacosta, since he was a cousin of hers, and there was a chance he would be at the party, and might even want to come up and sing with us.

We were only passingly familiar with Zappacosta, remembering him as a big-hair rock-crooner from the 1980’s, in the same vein as Gino Vanelli. We looked at his material from back then, trying to figure out which of his power ballads we could pull off.

We were thrilled to discover, however, that the new-look Zappacosta is much more accessible. He has chosen to follow Sting’s approach, aging gracefully with a more mature, sophisticated sound, rather than hanging on to the makeup and sleeveless shirts of his youth.

One of his most beautiful tunes, the one we chose to play for his family, is called “Bella” and is a haunting urban love song that sticks in your head for days. His version, recorded at the CBC studios in Vancouver is linked through his picture at top left.

The big irony for us is that our brilliant keyboard player, a handsome, bald Hungarian, is also named “Bela,” though he uses only one “l”. This makes it a doubly-fun love song to sing.

As it turned out, Alfie did not make the party, since he was in Edmonton the night before. We learned later that he also had been suffering some voice problems and actually had to cancel some gigs, but he is expected to recover. We played the song well, in fact we payed it twice, and it has now become part of our repertoire.

Zappacosta has found a new stride with his mature approach, and we wish him the very  best. We look forward to seeing him at Hugh’s Room in Toronto in February.

Follow Zappacosta on Twitter here.

Follow Absolutely Jack on Twitter here.

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Paul Schaffer – We’ll be here for the rest of our lives.

schafferPaul Schaffer is a fascinating guy. At once both nerdy and cool, like fellow countryman Geddy Lee, he has lived a musician’s dream, playing continually and successfully, backing up everyone who is anyone, and spending what seems like every waking moment immersed in music.

His autobiography, We’ll be here for the rest of our lives, is a fabulous romp through thirty or more years of his life, from his time as a young man growing up in Thunder Bay, where his lawyer father looked past his obvious talent on the family piano at Bar Mitzvahs and expected him to pursue a career in law, up to his current gig as musical director of David Letterman’s show.

The audiobook is even better than the book itself, because Paul himself narrates it. His tone of voice carries with it a certain tone of disbelief, as if he can’t actually believe all of this is happening to him.

He describes coming to Toronto for the first time, as a student at U of T, finding work as a piano player for a local strip club, before hooking up with the cast of Godspell that gave birth to the cast of Saturday Night Live, SCTV, and many other comedy legends.

He is one of these guys who was either born with a musical horseshoe strategically placed, or he is the living embodiment of Samuel Goldwyn’s famous quote, “the harder I work, the luckier I get,” since every job he got seemed to lead to another bigger, better one.

He was the musical director for SNL; he was in Spinal Tap; he was almost an original Blues Brother – Belushi dropped him in a jealous snit for his collaborations with Gilda Radner, he busked with Miles Davis and David Foster in Scrooged, and of course, he penned “It’s Raining Men.”

His biography is a great adventure story in rock music history, a definite good read. Another great Canadian delivering great entertainment.

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The Ancient Art of Weaving and Band Telepathy

Keith and Ron and the "Ancient Art of Weaving."

Keith and Ron and the “Ancient Art of Weaving.”

Whether you are a fan of the Rolling Stones or not, one of the most fascinating things about them is their guitar musicianship. When people talk about great guitarists in the worlds of rock, blues and R&B they often highlight virtuosos like Eric Clapton or Stevie Ray Vaughan, who admittedly can play clean and fast like no-one else; but Rolling Stones, as staffed by Keith Richards and Ron Wood (not the Mick Taylor or Brian Jones chapters), draws attention to another sort of expertise, that they themselves call the “fine art of weaving.” These two long-in-the-tooth players roll around the necks of their guitars like two figure skaters on a rink, each doing their own thing, but somehow fitting perfectly. If Keith goes up the neck, Ronnie goes to the far end, and the licks intertwine, as can be heard so well in tunes such as “Beast of Burden.”

It might seem relatively straightforward to do this, with blues-based rock lending itself so easily to lazy lengths of twelve-bars, but most bands do not do this. There is the rhythm guy and there is the lead guy.

The fine art of weaving is a craft that comes from years and years of endless live performance – something most musicians can only dream of, but it highlights the essential element of any successful live band, which is a form of telepathy, in which every member of the band knows what each other will do, and can, as a result, perform confidently. This confidence reflects in everyone’s performance, and then projects out into the audience.

Many bands perform in a woefully under-rehearsed state, having practiced the tunes a few times, but not having perfected the show. Each member is still just a musician, and the five or six of them have not yet fused as a group, and this shows.

On-stage telepathy comes from hours of rehearsal and live play. It comes from an attitude that a performance is more than just knowing the set list. Mick can hand off to Keith and Ron. Phil Collins handed off to Mike Rutherford. Lady Gaga and Michael Jackson both had absolute faith in their musician and dancers to never have to look over their shoulders once to know if all was unfolding as it should.

For the 99.9% of us musicians who aren’t in the full-time professional league, rehearsal time is scarce, and gig opportunities usually hard to come by. But it is essential to recognize that the ability to play one’s own piece of the tune is only a small fraction of the end product. If you are in a five-piece band, ten you are not one-fifth of that band. You are more like one-tenth. Because no matter how hard you practice at home, it is the “act” that counts equally if not more than the actual tune.

In my humble opinion, a rehearsal should run through at least one set from start to end exactly as it would be played on stage, including the prepared announcements and banter (if any). Only then will true telepathy start to develop.

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Pink Floyd’s The Wall

Pink Floyd - The Wall - inside album art

Pink Floyd – The Wall – inside album art

On this day (March 22) in 1980, Pink Floyd’s single “Another Brick In the Wall Part 2” was released, and it stayed at number 1 on the US singles charts for 4 weeks. The Wall remains one of my favorite albums of all time, and the movie, directed by Alan Parker and illustrated by Gerald Scarfe, remains one of my top three favourite movies ever.

To me this film seemed to capture both the craziness of big-time rock and roll as well as the alienation and confusion I was experiencing as a typical teenager. It was an album and a movie I could get lost in: the music, tinged with desperation and anger, and the movie, portraying the visual confusion of a drug-addled rock star played by a young Bob Geldof, that not merely blurred the borders between reality and hallucination, but positively chewed them up.

Other movies have done a good job at portraying the surreal life of a travelling superstar musician, or even wannabe superstars such as in Almost Famous, and even This is Spinal Tap, but The Wall, with its limos, roadies, groupies and drugs seemed to capture it all with all of the glitzy overkill of the early days of MTV and the music videos that were to follow.

As a piece of art. I find The Wall to be amazing. Some might find it dated now, of course, but it reminds me in many ways of The Sting, directed by George Roy Hill, which is another of my three top favourite movies of all time. The Sting used Scott Joplin’s ragtime genius to capture the feeling of Depression-era America, and used a Norman Rockwell-style cinematographyto frame it all. Parker basically used the angry sharp-edged animations of Gerald Scarfe to the same effect.

The wall also represented an excellent example of the concept album: something you were expected to listen to from beginning to end – two full LP’s – a style of entertainment that is less welcome in the age of downloadable singles.

I am not sure if there is a “Making of The Wall”documentary out there, but I would love to get my paws on it if there is.

 

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